Building A Social Networking Playpen

The new Facebook Timeline is an interesting, albeit revealing, feature.

Let me preface this by saying that although it's a little intrusive and seems suited to only your close friends, I don't have any particular issue with it. I'm sure people will complain about privacy, but at this point, I'm tired of re-treading that path. If you're a Facebook user, it's about time to just accept that your privacy is tenuous. I mean, really, that's always been the primary goal of Facebook -- to share personal information in an accessible manner. When people act shocked that something new facilitates this process, it strikes me as profound ignorance. If it's that threatening to you, delete your account. It's that simple.

Anyway, ranting digression aside, I would argue that the Timeline feature is an enormous sign of changing times for the social networking giant.

As I argued yesterday, Facebook's momentum is slowing, and its revenue-centric goal is moving toward keeping people entertained and occupied for extended periods. The goal is no longer gaining volumes of users, but keeping users occupied and involved. In short, they are attempting to avoid stagnation, and develop (somewhat) stable revenues.

If you ask me, Facebook is doing this all wrong. Bloating the platform and turning it into a dazzling information carnival does not seem destined for user retention. Facebook is latching onto the dignity of its users and manipulating it into a revenue-generation system.

Specifically, the Timeline takes the "Wall" concept, adds depth, and makes it an involving feature for the user. Whether or not you intend to write on a person's wall, the Timeline now allows the average user to see virtually anything about the person's page they end up on. The Timeline is a time consuming, visually attractive, and ultimately shameful appeal to the prying eyes of the average Facebook user. Essentially, "Facebook stalking" has been translated from an accidental feature, into a full-featured, intuitive, and interactive map. Much like Twitter's appropriation of user-developed workarounds into official features, Facebook has picked up on its users tendencies, and is playing to their desires, no matter how shameful.

Rather than attracting users and incessantly adding new sharing-specific features, Facebook is taking a step back and looking at how to further involve its users. How many more ad impressions can be gained? How long does each person stay on the site? What lucrative partnerships can they forge to further this goal? Just ahead of its IPO, Facebook has ostensibly ceased operating as a startup, and is beginning to act more like a corporate entity.

When perusing my Facebook News Feed, I now see a digest of what my friends are listening to, what they are reading, and what they are playing. Such information was previously static and user-entered. Now it is automatic and linked with specific "apps." In order to interact with these items, I surrender another nugget of my personal information. In order to use some external applications, I offer access to my Facebook account. It is becoming more and more accepted to do so, and soon the opposition to this trend will be smothered by the common user not knowing any better.

In Facebook's eyes, they're building a playpen for their users. Just like you put your child into a sandbox and hope they'll be occupied for a while, Facebook is dropping its users into a rich, involving environment that they can revel in without easily tiring.

Despite Facebook's Internet dominance, its success is inherently fragile. The very moment Facebook takes a few steps too far in terms of privacy, or drastically alters the way users interact, you suddenly have a MySpace-esque collapse. Users are fickle, and the Internet is ripe with competing means for sharing pointless information. One wrong move and the structure comes tumbling down, and your volumes of users move elsewhere.

With the rising popularity of smaller, mobile-only social networks like Instagram and Stamped, Facebook is undoubtedly more aware of this than ever. As Instagram and others demonstrate their capability to focus on the granular details of their respective interfaces without over-scaling features, Facebook continues to balloon. 

The question of leaving Facebook has been raised many times over the past few years, but in my eyes, the reasons for doing so have never been strong enough for me to even consider taking that step. But as alternate social networks continue to blossom, Facebook's newfound corporate leanings become increasingly unattractive and unnecessary.

I'll stick around for now, and I'll customize my Timeline for others to peruse (as if it's some sort of pruned social resume). But my usage is in irrefutably drastic decline, and the features being added are only serving to hasten this alienation. Rather than embracing a minimalist aesthetic and sticking to what it does best, Facebook is striving to become an all-encompassing behemoth, and it's an unbecoming trait.

I have hope that Facebook's recent acquisitions might be representative of something entirely new and separate from the current version of Facebook, but given the apparent mentality within the company, I worry that anything new would also fall victim to this imperialistic ideology of expansion and control.

Keeping its users permanently in the loop, keeping them on their site, and building a prison-like platform? I don't need that, and I'd hazard a guess that no one else does either.